Richard Brown and Keith Frankish on Illusionism

I’m glad I listened to this discussion between Richard Brown and Keith Frankish on Consciousness Live, as Brown seems to have many of the same questions about illusionism that I do. Brown is a philosopher at City University of New York, and takes a physicalist view of consciousness, and leans towards some form of identity theory (where conscious states are identical to brain states).

Early on in the discussion, Frankish says that “of course” he’s not denying consciousness in a sense. We have experience — we experience pain, we experience seeing red, etc.

Let’s pause the tape right there. This experience is precisely what needs to be explained. Let’s call this explanandum E. And E is just the definition of phenomenal consciousness (e.g. Block’s definition). Now, Frankish is free to go on and say that he doesn’t think E can be caused by properties A, B, and C, and that maybe A, B, and C don’t even exist, and that E is instead caused by X, Y, and Z. But he can’t deny E, and — as stated above — he concedes that we do have these experiences. But then he goes on to deny that phenomenal consciousness exists, even though E is just phenomenal consciousness! This illusionist position ends up in a muddle.

(Update:To be clear, Frankish does not believe E and PC are the same. So to him there is no contradiction in believing in E and not believing in PC. My response is that E is the standard definition of PC (e.g. by Ned Block and many others), and that he seems to be defining PC much more narrowly, and then rejecting that narrow definition.)

Brown is understandably confused by this position, and much of the interview is sort of this funny dance between the two, where they seem to agree on a lot of fundamentals, but Brown just can’t see why Frankish adopts this illusionist position of saying that phenomenal consciousness doesn’t exist. Brown points out that it makes it seem as if the experience is less than real, and Frankish again concedes that the experience is real. But he wants to go on and say that it involves misrepresentations, and so the illusionist language is (supposedly) justified. But who is denying that the brain can misrepresent things?

It’s telling that even people who are generally sympathetic to much of Frankish’s views on consciousness, e.g. Nicholas Humphreys and Susan Blackmore, are not willing to sign on to the illusionist program. It’s not just that it’s “bad politics” (to use Humphrey’s words) but that it fundamentally misstates the explanandum. Frankish has said numerous times (e.g. on social media) that yes, he could use more realist language, but that he wants to make it vivid what is involved in being a physicalist about consciousness. But this just leads to contradictions and confusions, such as both conceding E and somehow denying E, or claiming that illusionism side-steps the hard problem. No, any theory of consciousness — including illusionism — needs to explain E.

But I understand how Frankish arrived at his position. He doesn’t think physicalism can account for subjective experience, and he doesn’t want to abandon physicalism, so he denies subjective experience. Katalin Balog, in response to Frankish’s illusionism article, thinks that physicalism can account for subjective experience (she favours phenomenal concept theory), but that, in the event that it turns out physicalism can’t account for subjective experience, we should sooner abandon physicalism than deny that we have such experience.

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